By Brian P. Gatens
As much as it pains me to admit it, our educational system does things that serve only to alienate children further from their educational growth. One of the most pernicious and prevalent of these is summer school.
During the course of a school year, children have about 10 months to gain appropriate understanding of course content. During that time the teacher, hopefully working with the parents, has the child complete a series of activities designed to develop a sense of mastery. Unfortunately, this concept doesn’t always apply to all children and as a result the teacher can’t, in good conscience, give the child the year’s worth of credit for the course. Summer school looms on the horizon.
Naturally, attending summer school symbolizes failure and creates a stigma for the children who have to attend. What can we do to overcome this stigma, and more importantly, what can we do to prevent the need for children to attend these programs? Here are my thoughts:
1. Make Summer School the End of the Child’s Failure, Not the Beginning.
Nobody should end up in summer school by surprise — if they do in your school, you need to have a talk with your principal about school/home communication. Long before summer school became a requirement for lagging performers, the school should have been working aggressively with them to help them master the necessary content.
Yes, this means schools often have to overextend themselves to help needy students. And the most important thing to remember is that high-needs children often hide their lack of ability behind a cloak of indifference and apathy. I don’t believe any child wants to fail a class. Instead, some children find failure is much more hospitable than admitting fear.
2. Reframe Summer School Not as Punishment, But as an Opportunity for Growth.
Over the past several years, I’ve seen the growth of summer academies. Very often these summer programs offer classes that are more tuned to student interests and designed to help avoid the “summer slump” when students take extended breaks from school.
Rather than have the summer program dwell on cramming 10 months of failed content into two weeks, your school’s program could be devoted to helping the child grow as a learner.
3. Extend the Participant Pool
When summer school programs consist entirely of struggling students, it’s no surprise that they feel stigmatized. Schools can help alleviate the stigma of summer school by offering a wider spectrum of programs that engage students from across the district.
By creating a summer program filled with a mix of successful and struggling students, schools can help create an environment in which academic success is the norm.
4. Focus on Skill Development
Summer programs typically focus only on content the student missed. It’s important for the required program to have a mix of content to be learned combined with reinforcement of the base set of skills needed to succeed in the future.
If children leave summer school with the same skill set they came in with, you’ve pretty much guaranteed a return trip.
An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is the Superintendent of Schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal, superintendent/principal, and now superintendent.